In “My Mistress Melancholy,” Mary Ann Lund chooses a seldom-used word to describe Robert Burton’s style in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Congeries is most often used disparagingly. The OED defines it as “a collection of things merely massed or heaped together.” The adverb betrays the negative connotation. At the sentence and paragraph level this is accurate. A new thought or allusion may follow any other. Burton possessed a marvelously associative mind, not to be confused with the slop-bucket approach of such later writers as Thomas Wolfe or Jack Kerouac.
But on the larger scales, the Anatomy is arranged in partitions, sections, members and subsections. Superficially, it sometimes resembles Spinoza’s Ethics, the full Latin title of which is Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrate [Demonstrated in Geometrical Order]. But Burton’s book is not organized as a sustained argument in the modern sense. The books it most resembles are Tristram Shandy and Moby-Dick, works into which their authors could have crammed anything. Burton’s was a playful, well-stocked mind. He revised and expanded his Anatomy five times in the seventeen years following the first edition. His subject is what we call depression but his spirit can be impish. He anatomizes melancholy, in part, to immunize or cure himself, just as the narrator of Laurence Sterne’s novel (and the tubercular author himself) keeps writing in order to defer death. Lund writes:
“Melancholy as ‘the character of mortality’ is an endlessly varied, proliferating disease, and Burton’s attempt to chart it is propelled by his curiosity – not always in a straight line. As an antidote to inactivity, the curiosity he displays and encourages among his readers becomes the best hope against melancholy. The Anatomy’s final words are to keep going: ‘be not solitary, be not idle’.”
Burton even articulates a timely reminder of what it means to be a writer, in a passage remarkably plain-spoken and free of allusions:
“He that will freely speak and write, must be for ever no subject, under no prince or law, but lay out the matter truly as it is, not caring what any can, will, like or dislike.”